Timshel | Homily for Holy Thursday 2020

Homily for Holy Thursday
9 April 2020

Cathedral of Saint Raymond Nonnatus


Dear Bishop Pates, my brother priests, Deacon Len, the community of Saint Raymond Nonnatus, brothers and sisters in Christ from the Diocese of Joliet and beyond who pray with us from afar this night, good evening and thank you for allowing me to preach on this special night.

One of my favorite bands is called Mumford and Sons, and in 2009 they released an album called “Sigh No More.” I was a senior in high school then, and this album helped to shape my generation. The music and lyrics are raw, revealing, and vulnerable; in a word, Sign No More is an album for the human heart written by humans, slightly older than seniors in high school, whose hearts had been broken and healed, had been filled with love and joy, and all of this – the gamut of the human experience – was shared with us in the form of music. This was only possible because Mumford and Sons took their experiences and circumstances seriously, and lived through them, and in their generosity told us about it. 

A particularly favorite song of mine from this album is called “Timshel.” It begins like this:

Cold is the water
It freezes your already cold mind
Already cold, cold mind
And death is at your doorstep
And it will steal your innocence
But it will not steal substance.

But you are not alone in this
And you are not alone in this.
As brothers we will stand and we’ll hold your hand
Hold your hand.


“Death is at your doorstep, and it will steal your innocence, but it will not steal your substance.” The major moments of life, of which a global pandemic certainly reigns supreme, do impact us, in ways for which we may or may not be ready. Yes, these moments, these circumstances do steal our innocence, but they do not steal our substance. The question, as I said in my very first video on the Saint Raymond Facebook page all those weeks ago, is not: where did the virus come from, when will this be over, what is the latest update, is it up to me to find the cure? No, the question is much simpler than that but, I think, is harder to answer: God my Father, Christ my Brother, Holy Spirit of God, my consoler – how are you asking me to live these moments well?

The fruit that our quarantine will bear depends almost entirely on our primary choice to first bear the quarantine, to enter into it and to continue to serve as Christian people in the midst of it, and, in some sense, in spite of it.

In some sense, the whole of the Christian life depends on choices like this. Thou mayest, or thou mayest not; it’s up to us.

The word Timshel, the title of that song, is actually taken from Holy Scripture. In the fourth chapter of Genesis, as Cain is getting ready to murder his brother Abel, the LORD speaks to Cain and says, “Why are you angry? Why are you dejected? If you act rightly, you will be accepted; but if not, sin lies in wait at the door and its desire is for you, but you can be its master.” (Gen. 4:6-7)

“But you can be its master.” “You can” – this is the phrase translated from the Hebrew word “Timshel.” The American Standard Translation says, “Do thou” be its master; it is an order. “You will master sin, or else you will not be accepted.” The King James Version is “thou shalt”, implying that “you certainly will triumph over sin.” “But the Hebrew word, the word timshel – thou mayest – that gives a choice…That says the way is open. That throws it right back on us. For if ‘Thou mayest’ – it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?” (John Steinbeck, East of Eden, 303.

Timshel, thou mayest or thou mayest not. This is our fundamental choice, always and everywhere.

In the Gospel this evening, St. John recounts that “The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Isacriot, to hand him over. So, during supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God, he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist.”

The Father had put everything into the power of Jesus. What else could this mean but that, finally, the moment had come when Jesus would be faced with the choice to remain perfectly obedient to the will of the Father or not; to walk away from the cup that was coming to him or to remain, to go to the Cross, and to offer himself as a perfect evening sacrifice for the redemption of all, giving to all the possibility of true forgiveness of sins, and of life everlasting?

And, as if foreshadowing the choice he would make to get up and face those who had come to arrest him in the Garden, he gets up from supper, and humbles himself, becoming no more than a slave, and he washes the feet of his friends.

In the offering of the bread and wine as his body and blood and in the washing of the feet, Jesus Christ establishes the Sacred Order of the priesthood. We do not need the bloody sacrifices of rams and goats by a hereditary priesthood that renews itself with every passing generation. We finally have one High Priest of a NEW and ETERNAL covenant. I do not serve you as a priest in the name of Jesus, but it is Jesus who serves you even through the weakness of my flesh.

By his own choice, Jesus went to the Cross; by my own choice, I laid on the floor – that floor, just over there – and I died. Every man who has laid on the floor, every man on whose head the bishop has laid hands, every man whose hands have been anointed with the Sacred Oil of Gladness, the Chrism, named for Christ, whose yolk is easy and whose burden is light – every man who has become a priest is a man who is dead; it is no longer he, but Christ who lives in him. He is dead, and his life is hidden now with Christ in God.

The struggle, the choice that faces every priest, every day is whether, in this moment, he will give his life again for God or whether he will fight God to get his life back. And the priest who fights for his life back, will become a sad man. Everyone of us does this; everyone of us is faced with things, with global pandemics, with dying people, with parishioners we don’t know how to help, with late nights and early mornings, and at a certain point each one of us has made the choice to fight for our own way, to demand back the life we freely gave to God.

I hope that you all are still going back once a day at least to listen to the Palm Sunday homily of my friend, Fr. Benedict Zele. In speaking of the current global situation, he said, “It is unusual and somehow uncomfortable. We are learning, and learning very fast, to live with the unusual, to be comfortable with the uncomfortable” because we know that all of this is “providentially arranged to the resurrection.”

He continued by saying that Palm Sunday had come at a time “when we must focus on recovering the mission of the Church: making disciples in the way of Jesus.”

What is the way of the Jesus? It is the Cross. What is the way of Jesus? Dear brother priests, wherever you are, the way of Jesus is giving up ourselves once more; without a doubt, there are things about ministry in the time of a global pandemic that scare us, that are uncomfortable for us, that require us to put ourselves away and to put down our premonitions and the things we’d rather not do, so that we can be free – free! – to hear the cry of our people in their distress. It means getting up from supper, taking off our comfortable garments, and getting down on our knees, and washing, kissing, caressing, the feet of the least among us.

The way of Jesus is self-sacrifice, and he teaches us definitively that there is no such thing as love without self-sacrifice.

In a critical time such as this, it is appropriate that Holy Week has come.

Fr. Benedict went on, reminding us that “the Devil, the opponent of God, separates people from God by confusing the people about their mission” and instead proposes to them “ungodly strategies” for life.

On this sacred night, Jesus both established the priesthood and set the standard for every priest, in every age, forever: lower yourself, humble yourself, become obedient even to death so that your people might know the forgiveness of their sins, and an end to their fear, and a beginning of life.

Brother priests, in this Cathedral and wherever you might be, the choice is ours. We mayest, or we mayest not.

On this night, I want to publicly commend and thank Bishop Richard Pates who, perfectly comfortable eating his breakfast in the midst of his retirement, received a phone call and was asked by Mother Church to come to the Diocese of Joliet and serve. He had every right to say no, to say “wrong number”, to say “I’m not up to it.” But in that moment, Bishop, sitting in your kitchen somewhere in Minnesota, you had a choice; thou mayest, or thou mayest not. Whether you recognized it or not, the graces given to you as you lay on the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica on December 20th, 1968 came rushing back to help you; the Chrism that Bishop Reh spread on your hands that day, the oil that only to the senses had dried there long ago, became sweet and fragrant again, and you said YES.

And now, almost certainly to your chagrin, you’re leading us, your sons and daughters, through a global pandemic. And you are for us, your priests, an example and witness of priesthood.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, as we approach these sacred mysteries let us do so ever mindful that the Father has put everything into our power, we have what we need to choose him anew, and to follow him without fear. We have what we need to live for him and to die for him; we mayest, but we mayest not. We are responsible for what we choose.

John Steinbeck wrote that “Timshel” might just be the most important word in the world. Makes sense to me.

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